On this date last year, a group of Pakistani women journalists released a joint statement demanding the government to end the violence that they are subjected to on the internet, at the hands of the elected officials of ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and in extension their many supporters. The statement can be accessed here.
The statement came in response to the abuse faced by women journalists as they reported and continue to report on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Through this statement, the list of 165 undersigned women journalists highlighted that these attacks continue to make it incredibly difficult for them to carry out their professional duties.
The statement pointed out that online attacks are instigated by government officials and then amplified by groups of Twitter accounts, which claim to be affiliated to the ruling party.
Calling these attacks “a well-defined and coordinated campaign”, the women journalists further stated that they are doxxed online, with their personal details made public. They are referred to as peddlers of “fake news”, “enemy of the people”and accused of taking bribes. Moreover, women journalists also face gender-based threats of physical and sexual violence, displaying the sexist and mysoginistic mindsets behind the threats.
Signatories noted that multiple attempts at hacking resulted in a limited access to information. In some cases, the accounts were locked as a result. The statement further states that legislation and authorities fail to grant women journalists the protection that is guaranteed under Article 4: Right of individuals to be dealt with in accordance with law, etc. of the Constitution of Pakistan.
The group demanded the ruling party to immediately restrain its members, followers and supporters from targeting women journalists, and hold those in government accountable and take action against them.
The threat of self-censorship
Such gender-based threats and intimidation, coupled with lack of protection and implementation of laws, creates an environment of insecurity. Women journalists cannot carry out their duties without fear of online violence, and even physical violence. This leads to self-censorship, which in itself is an infringement on free speech.
“We are being prevented from exercising our right to free speech and participate in public discourse. When we self-censor, others are prevented from receiving information to form their views, which is a violation of their rights under Article 19-A,” the statement said.
Women journalists mostly face gender-based violence more than actual criticism of their work. As a result, they are forced to self-censor.
A research by Media Matters for Democracy titled “Women Journalists and the Double Bind: The Self-Censorship Effect of Online Harassment in Pakistan” revealed that nine out of every 10 women journalists who participated in the research survey said they were more likely to face online violence if they did not self-censor. Around 70 percent of the respondents reported facing some form of threats, attacks or harassment for their journalism or personal expression, up from nearly 60 percent in 2018.
Women journalists most frequently identified online violence, like harassment, trolling, and coordinated abusive campaigns, as the main factor that forced them to limit their professional journalism and personal expression.
The politically-motivated “weaponisation” of social media was shown to be of major concern, as these acts frequently target women journalists with coordinated campaigns to discredit their work and malign their reputation. The journalists said sexualised online abuse against them includes rape threats and death threats, which create risks for their psychological and physical well-being, as well as access to information.
Similarly, a study by Media Matters for Democracy titled Hostile Bytes, shows that 3 out of 10 women journalists are victims of serious online crime, such as blackmail and incitement to violence against them. The research also found that 95 percent of women journalists feel online violence has an impact on their professional choices, while 77 percent self-censor on the internet as a way to counter online violence.
According to another study titled Gendering Self-Censorship, 87 percent of the women journalists who were surveyed practiced self-censorship in their journalism, and 93 percent said that it was important to self-censor to deal with targeted abuse and harassment.
The impact of gender-based threats
According to a 2017 report titled “Life as a Woman Journalist in Pakistan: Threats, Harassment and Rejection by Freedom Network”, Pakistan is already one of the deadliest countries to practice journalism in – but for women media practitioners, the profession offers additional challenges such as harassment from colleagues to social and cultural constraints.
“Even as media pluralisms have multiplied but the voices and perspectives of women in the world of news and opinion have not increased in the same proportion,” the report noted.
On August 18, 2020, a parliamentary body heard about women journalists being harassed on social media.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari chaired the National Assembly meeting of the Standing Committee on Human Rights, where he was told about the harassment of women journalists through video link.
“Women journalists are being harassed for dissent,” talk show host Asma Shirazi said.
“Twice, people broke into my house to harass me. Attempts are being made to socially isolate Pakistani women journalists. Many women journalists have stopped tweeting for fear of harassment on social media. We will not allow our daughters to stay at home for fear of abuse,” she said.
“If there is disagreement with male journalists, they are ignored, while female journalists are labeled miscreants when there is a disagreement with them,” Tanzeela Mazhar said.
While the meeting was informed that the government was addressing the issue, PTI MNA Attaullah said that harassment was nothing new.